The Strange Case of the Electric Shock Machine

Recently when looking through the deposit files (which give information about when a collection came to an archive) of University of Glasgow Archive Services, an archivist came across an intriguing note about the papers of David Birrell Campbell:

 

“Further to my recent telephone conversation with you I now enclose the remaining parts belonging to the ‘electric shock’ machine”

 

This inconspicuous letter led to an investigation into the original owner of the machine and the other items his family donated to the university. Working with the Hunterian Museum, we have learnt more about the kind of items that can come along with archival collections, particularly medical and scientific instruments. Over two blogs we will describe the process of how to better understand items and collections and what we have learnt about the electric shock machine itself.

The first step in solving the puzzle of the electric shock machine was to check the catalogue and see if the mysterious machine was mentioned at all. A quick look revealed that the papers were a fairly standard set of student notes of Dr David Birrell Campbell which were mainly from the late nineteenth century and didn’t tell us anything about the machine. The next step was to see whether the electric shock machine had found its way into the Hunterian. This revealed that not only did the Hunterian hold the machine it also held other items donated by Dr Campbell’s family. To find out more about the machine I emailed Nicky Reeves, Curator of Scientific and Medical History Collections at the Hunterian, who was able to retrieve several items from the collection for me to come and look at. Here he explains what we saw:

 

neurotoneWhat we had was the fabulously titled “Class O Hodgkinson Electro-Neurotone Improved Electromedical Apparatus”, about the size of a very small domestic iron, in good condition and in its original box. What, we wondered, what this for? Firstly, it’s best to understand what it was not for. Whilst it has been labelled an “electric shock device” by a previous Hunterian curator, the “shocks” it provided were very small, neither violent nor dramatic. This is not a torture device, nor anything like a modern defibrillator, for instance. Nor is it the type of device popularised from the mid 20th century to treat mental illnesses with electroconvulsive therapy: “electric shock device” turns out to be a not very accurate description for our device. Nor does it appear that the Electro-Neurotone is a euphemistically labelled vibrator or massager, devices which were used quite routinely in the decades around 1900 by physicians to medically induce “hysterical paroxysm” in female patients.

The Electro-Neurotone does not vibrate. Rather, it passed a small current through a localised part of the body in order to either cure or alleviate a remarkable variety of ailments, as part of a reasonably mainstream and respectable late 19th and early 20th century practice known as electrotherapy or electropathy. An advert in the West London Medical Journal of 1905 described how the device was “now well-known to the leaders of the profession, especially in Bath, Buxton and Harrogate” (in other words, the fashionable spa towns), and that the Class O version, specifically for use in the home by the patient themselves, had been “prescribed in thousands in this country to the relief of neuralgia.

 

However there was still more to learn. An internet search revealed an account of the device, written by the inventor, an Australian physician, in 1893: ‘The Electro-Neurotone Apparatus: Its Use & Application in Various Forms of Nervous & Other Diseases, A Descriptive Treatise by the Inventor FC Hodgkinson’, which is held by the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. In order to find out more Nicky visited the library to read up on how the machine was used- find out what he discovered in the next blog post.



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  1. The Strange Case of the Electric Shock Machine: The Plot Thickens « University of Glasgow Library

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